Feminism and the Figure of the Fembot (Part 6.1 of 7)

VI. Phyllis, Ellery, and Landon: The Transgression/Failure of the Fembot

Novelist Thomas Berger, author of "Adventures of the Artificial Woman"
Novelist Thomas Berger, author of “Adventures of the Artificial Woman”

This trope of newly created ‘intelligent’ machines exposing human failings is exercised quite starkly in a novel written by the prolific science fiction author Thomas Berger, titled Adventures of the Artificial Woman. In this work, as in the Battlestar Galactica example above, the Fembot here exposes the truth that the protagonist’s failure does not lie within his making of a faulty machine, but in is his failing to come to terms with his own and others fluid sexual identities.

The cover of the new edition of "Adventures of the Artificial Woman" by Thomas Berger
The cover of the new edition of “Adventures of the Artificial Woman” by Thomas Berger

The main character, Ellery Pierce, creates the perfect female companion for himself, an animatron he calls Phyllis. When she is finally completed and ready to become a part of his life, Ellery is struck by how clever his robot appears to be, managing to purchase cookbooks, make-up, and learn how to make the perfect gimlet all without direct orders from him. He is even more shocked when she announces that she is leaving him and wants to strike out on her own. He tries convincing her, in vain, that she should stay, telling her that “‘You can’t make it on your own. You’re not some Frankenstein creation of organic materials, with a brain that revolts against its maker. You’re an electronic and mechanical personage. You’ll need recharging any minute now’” (Berger 30). Ellery assumes, like so many other men, that Phyllis will be lost without male guidance and that she is incapable of having goals other than those he has previously supplied for her. For the reader, it is unclear from where exactly Pierce’s objections stem: whether he doubts Phyllis because of her gender or whether it is because she is a robot. It seems to be a little bit of both.

This ambiguity comes up repeatedly in the text. For example, upon further consideration of his creation’s chances of survival in the real world, Ellery admits that “She had great strengths: an ability to learn almost instantaneously, from vicarious as well as personal experience; an immunity to irreparable diseases of body and spirit; [and] a lack of spite and other corrosive emotions”. Still, Ellery questions whether these strengths will “compensate for the obvious incapacities of a creature who was not what she seemed” (Berger 31). At the story’s conclusion, the readers are left to decide for themselves whether Phyllis is “not what she seems” in the sense that she is a robot in human form or whether she is “not what she seems” because she does not conform to Pierce’s self-made concepts of femininity.


In Understanding Thomas Berger, Professor Brooks Landon performs an in-depth and comprehensive analysis of Berger’s literary works as a whole. Landon uses quotes from interviews with Berger, as well as examples from his books (such as Regiment of Women, Killing Time, and Little Big Man) to back up his claims while placing Adventures of the Artificial Woman in a different light. I will perform an analysis of Landon’s reading of Adventures of the Artificial Woman because it illustrates one of the key tenets of my larger argument: that when the Fembot figure is read without taking into account gender performance theory or machine intelligence theory, the conclusions drawn are close-minded and flat.

While one would be initially tempted to view this novel as a simple parody of the Fembot genre of science fiction stories, Landon makes a point of saying that, “Unlike parody, Berger’s novels start from, rather than aim toward, the traditions of literary formulas, a testing and broadening of possibilities rather than a burlesquing of limitations” (Landon 18). By forcing readers away from thinking of Adventures of the Artificial Woman as a parody, the work must be looked at in more depth. Landon’s claim is reminiscent of Butler’s theory that drag and butch/femme play are subversive performances not because they aim to imitate heterosexual gender roles perfectly, but precisely because they work within the already established gender roles and ‘broaden the possibilities’ of acceptable gender performance by ‘burlesquing its limitations’. Landon’s statement also provides a revealing way to read the character of the artificial woman herself, since she is a ‘parody’ of a human woman. His statement would suggest that Berger intended her to broaden the readers’ ideas of what defines ‘machine’ and ‘woman’ by having her function as a something more than a simple parody.

The drag queen Miss Understood, as captured by David Shankbone (via Flickr)
The drag queen Miss Understood, as captured by David Shankbone (via Flickr)

Furthermore, Landon quotes Berger as saying, “‘I regard myself as a teller of tales that are intended primarily to enchant or at least entertain myself. Only by living in the imagination can I successfully pretend I am a human being’” (Landon 6). It seems appropriate once again to read this comment through the figure of Phyllis, the artificial woman. In the novel, the question comes up time and time again whether Phyllis is imagining new scenarios or simply responding to her programming. For Berger, this ability to ‘imagine’ is what defines humanity. Within the novel, he toys with giving this ability to Phyllis sometimes and taking it away at others.

Landon discusses his own reading of Adventures of the Artificial Woman and similar titles liked Regiment of Women, Being Invisible, Changing the Past, and Robert Crews in the book’s sixth chapter: “Subversions of Good Order”. This title is particularly apt when reading the novel from a Butler perspective of gender performance as subversion. Landon argues that it is in these novels that one sees “Berger’s most overt experiments to see what becomes of reality when one of its vital elements is radically altered” (Landon 155). Landon claims that while every novel is an “experiment with reality,” Berger embarks on these experiments by changing something that is considered natural into something considered unnatural (Landon 155).

Landon performs an astute reading of how Berger uses Phyllis within the novel. For example, Landon, quoting from critic Zulfikar Ghose in Review of Contemporary Fiction, states that “‘At first…Phyllis is the perfect female-as-sex-object,’ whose extreme literalness provides humor for her maker, but quickly leads to a questioning and critiquing of human assumptions, and soon, like her human female counterparts before her, she chooses to leave Ellery” (Landon 185). This point shows that it is logic (a “male” trait) not emotion (a “female” trait) that encourages Phyllis to leave her maker, pointing out that it is not, as Ellery had previously argued, some fault in his women that makes them leave, but perhaps a fault in himself. Landon argues that the comedic aspect of this particular Berger novel lends itself to “random satirical potshots at the mechanisms of human sexuality…with an occasional shot at the worship of technology” (Landon 187). He then points to a passage in the middle of the novel, where Phyllis “observes that humans do technology much better than they do morality” (Berger 187). This section of the novel forces readers to focus on the understanding Phyllis has acquired of human frailty, something which she, as a machine, cannot experience firsthand. Yet, although she can’t directly feel this all-too-human vulnerability, she can recognize and understand it – just as well as any conscious, thinking human being.

Works Cited

Berger, Thomas. Adventures of the Artificial Woman: a Novel. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004. Print.

Landon, Brooks. Understanding Thomas Berger. Columbia: The University of South Carolina Press, 2010.

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Published by rsjeffrey

Robin Jeffrey was born in Cheyenne, Wyoming to a psychologist and a librarian, giving her a love of literature and a consuming interest in the inner workings of people’s minds.

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